A #MeToo Guide To The Red Light District Of Amsterdam

Amsterdam

In the port of Amsterdam
There are sailors who dance
Rubbing their bellies
Against women’s bellies
They turn and they dance
Like suns spat out
To the torn up sound
Of a rancid accordion
They twist their necks
To better hear each other laugh
Until all of a sudden
The accordion dies,
So with a serious gesture
With a proud look,
They bring back their whores
Into the daylight
(Jacques Brel – Amsterdam)

 

You just have to take a walk through the Red Light District of Amsterdam, to realize the impossible situation a lot of women find themselves in, due to the behaviour of a minority of men. To say that all men are sexist pigs who consider that women should give in to their sexual fantasies without questioning, is a gross exaggeration. Women who publicly endorse that view are not doing themselves, or anybody else, a favour. But as a man, I openly admit that I am not proud of the way some of my fellow-men act towards women.

The release of male sexual frustrations into the evening air is no more palpable than in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, situated in the heart of a city renowned for its tolerance. The district, known as the Wallen (Ramparts), is a solid cocktail of sex hormones and cannabis, washed down by copious amounts of beer. An unmistakable scent hovers above the murky waters of the concentric canals, whilst the all-too-familiar voices of drunken Englishmen resound as a cacophony of insults, cheap jokes, and schoolboy laughs, all directed towards a half-dressed damsel trapped in the confines of a red-neon illuminated glass window, asking for nothing more than to be paid.

The aim of the Dutch authorities is a noble one, given the circumstances – controlling a phenomenon that will exist, whether we like it or not. The sex-workers in Amsterdam have their own union, benefit from  police protection, and have access to an information centre. Frequent monitoring comprises testing for disease and professional standards.

 

“The Old Church remains trapped for eternity

in the earthly sins and misdemeanours of the Wallen,

where human flesh and temptation prime

over human souls and redemption.”

In the centre of the Red Light District lies a church – the Oude Kerk. Its name – the Old Church – reminds us that it is one of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam, dating from the 14th century. Wedged between the Waarmoesstraat and the Ouderzijds Achterbuurval canal, it remains trapped for eternity in the earthly sins and misdemeanours of the Wallen, where human flesh and temptation prime over human souls and redemption.

 

photo BBC

One side of the church is bordered by a narrow cobblestone alley where one can not walk ignoring the windows of pecuniary carnal temptations. Sandwiched between two rows of crimson-red windows, and the “Quartier Putain” café (Hookers Neighbourhood) toddlers are being left at a nursery before their parents cycle to work. The Princess Juliana nursery school is one of the better nursery schools in Amsterdam, and is a shocking emblem of how liberal the Dutch can be, not worried in the least by what goes on behind closed doors or, in this case, closed windows. Some say that it is good for the children, getting them to accept people as they are. I am always uneasy at the thought of three-year-olds asking mummy what the lady is doing behind the window and why she isn’t dressed for breakfast yet. I suppose that some of them think that there’s a swimming-pool somewhere behind the open curtains. In growing-up in such an environment, the children will not even question the morality of it all, thinking that these are normal women who are just exercising their profession.

 

…when I walk past the ladies, I think ‘okay where do I look?’ But it does not bother me. You just think there must be a reason why they are working there and you don’t know if it is a good one or a bad one, but you accept it.”  – Sally Fritzsche (Manager, Princes Juliana Nursery)

 

On the other side of the Old Church, the Oudekerksplein is much wider. A small statue lies on the square, and honours the prostitutes of the world. Unveiled in 2007, “Belle” (Beautiful) reminds visitors to, “Respect sex workers all over the world.” Almost unnoticed because resting on a cobblestone, is a bronze relief of a hand caressing a female breast, as if to say, “Grope as much as you want, but don’t insult the woman!”

 

In 2009, the then mayor of Amsterdam, Lodewijk Asscher, launched an ambitious project to “clean-up” Amsterdam’s Red Light District, without completely destroying it. The project was named “Project-1012,” the numbers being the postal code of the area.Tha aim was to significantly reduce the number of red-light windows, buy-up numerous buildings that were owned by more than dubious individuals, limit and severely control the coffee-shops, and also limit the number of small business especially directed at tourists. The philosophy behind the project was to significantly curtail rising criminality whilst, at the same time, encouraging local businesses and giving priority to the local community.

I’ve been living for 19 years in the Netherlands and, as far as I can tell, nothing has really changed in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. Town mayors come and go, of course, and noble dreams are quickly forgotten, or modified, depending on the moral philosophy of the day. The Red Light District remains a tourist attraction in its own right, and it will take a courageous mayor to replace the red of Amsterdam with the blue of Delft, the smell of cannabis with that of Gouda cheese.

Devenando works in a family business, Agapi Room Rentals, owned by his father, and rents twenty or so famous red-lit rooms. The asking price is 100 euros during the day, and 200 euros at night. Peak-time, of course, is lucrative, and the sex-workers market resembles that of commercial airlines, where companies profit from peak period travel. Assuming that the minimal price a punter has to pay is 50 euros, the working girls will have to satisfy at least 3 or 4 punters per day, just to cover the cost of the room. Agapi prides itself in being a small family run business, with a close human contact with its customers. Ironically, Agapi received an official warning from the Amsterdam council, who reminded the landlords that physical contact with the sex-workers was not tolerated. For Lolita, one of Agapi’s daily tenants, the council’s reaction is ridiculous. She wrote a letter to the council, that was signed by sixty other sex-workers, in an attempt to refute their accusations.

Everyone can understand that sexual contact is meant. But if someone is crying, then do you comfort them anyway? That should not be allowed? – Lolita

I just ask myself why some of the women needed to be comforted, in the first place.

 

“The question of to what extent the disappearance of the red light district in Amsterdam would have adverse effects on the local economy, may be posed, in certain circles.”

For Devenando, “it has become more of a tourist attraction. They don’t come in. People only come here to look.” Whilst it is true that most visitors to Amsterdam consider the Red Light District as a theme park, we must not ignore the dark underside that runs through the district that some describe as, “the square-mile of misery.”

The crucial question that must be posed is whether the sex-workers are forced to sit behind an open window, or not. Official figures of the number of women being trafficked from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, are difficult to come by, because only those who are officially filed by the authorities, are accounted for. A few days ago, the Dutch authorities released a detailed rapport concerning human trafficking into the Netherlands. Although there was a reduction in the number of victims in 2015, this downward trend has not been confirmed. Furthermore, in 2017, only 958 cases were actually reported, a pale reflection of the seriousness of the situation.

It is not only Eastern European women who fall victim to sex trafficking. An increasing number of Dutch women, most of whom are minors, are also ending up in the lucrative sex business. What is worrying is that, in 2017, only 263 cases were reported in spite of the fact that this form of human trafficking is widespread. For the Dutch authorities, a possible explanation is that the young women are forced to work at home, or as escorts, making their identification more difficult. Another aggravating factor is that many victims do not have the possibility to report their situation to the police or help organisations, or are too scared to do so. In 2017, it was estimated that at least 1300 Dutch girls, aged 12-17, are victims of sex trafficking, per year, with the total number of human trafficking victims being five times higher.

In 2013, four Bulgarians received a five-year prison sentence for human trafficking in Utrecht’s red light district that comprised house boats, operating as brothels. The district was closed the same year, out of fear of further human trafficking. The case underscores the possibility that victims of human trafficking may be forced to work in areas that are tolerated or even seen as benefiting the local community. The question of to what extent the disappearance of the red light district in Amsterdam would have adverse effects on the local economy, may be posed in certain circles. Who is the pimp, and who is the victim?

I admit that, like most people, I have visited the Red Light District of Amsterdam, having heard so much about it. I can give you one piece of advice if you do visit the area – look into the girls’ eyes and not at their bodies. You will see gazes lost in a dream, or escaping the realm of reality with the help of a mobile phone. Others have an inner attractive power comparable to that of a siren’s chant. When the attention is caught, and the red curtain drawn, the audacity of human tolerance is tragically surpassed.